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Emigration: I’m prescribed cannabis for ADHD but can’t travel home to Ireland

In the final part of our series Cannabis Health editor, Caroline Barry shares her own story.

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ADHD: An Irish passport lies on top of a blue European document. Both passports are ontop of a map where a pen is marking the route

In the final part of our series Cannabis Health editor, Caroline Barry shares her own story. As an Irish person using cannabis for ADHD in the UK, Caroline can’t travel home with her medication.

For weeks I have been covering the stories of Irish people who are emigrating or who have emigrated for better access to cannabis. This has covered multiple different experiences from those tired of living with prohibition, patients unable to afford their medication to those unable to travel home with cannabis without breaking the law. It also touched on lost business and taxes for Ireland.

I never thought I would be part of the story but here we are.

ADHD: A woman with neon green hair looks away from the camera. She is wearing a white shirt with a black tie.

My name is Caroline and I’m the editor of Cannabis Health. I’m also a medical cannabis patient currently being treated for ADHD.

I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of ten after it became very apparent I had an excessive amount of energy. Not only that but I was incredibly difficult in school as I would either concentrate intently to the point of forgetting to move or not at all. A common misconception is that ADHD people can’t concentrate when it’s actually that we can’t balance it.

My schoolwork was a mess of inattentive mistakes if I even did it at all. I was too busy getting my energy out by singing, running, chatting or distracting the other children in the class. I also had oppositional defiant disorder so telling me what to do was a sure way to start a fight. ADHD people often have comorbidity with other conditions such as autism or anxiety.

ADHD and growing up in rural Ireland

I grew up in rural Ireland where there was a lot of fields or coastline to go running or walking on, but not a lot of support in terms of healthcare. I got very used to being described as trouble, a handful or the naughty child because my brain worked differently. Experts estimated that ADHD children hear on average 20,000 more pieces criticism before they reach the age of 10.

This was my reason for not seeking healthcare. While I took a cocktail of medications as a child, I stopped as a teenager because they didn’t appear to do anything. I shut down by not telling anyone I had the condition for fear of being treated differently. I struggled through my degree, my masters then through half of my PhD studies before I left as I wasn’t able to handle it.

I compensated by filling my days with events or fun activities. If there was a night out, cinema trip or dinner out to be had then I was there. ADHD people have lower levels of dopamine than neurotypical people do so we spend a lot of time looking for short bursts of it. Anything we find fun or new can help us to top that up.

I eventually emigrated from Ireland in 2012 for economical reasons. The country was on its knees after a recession, a housing crash and series of financial scandals. Jobs were scarce, the money was dismal and it became increasingly apparent that there wasn’t going to be a job at the end of my MA degree. So I left along with 54,000 other Irish people that year. The worst year of emigration on record for Ireland.

ADHD: A woman with blue shoulder length hair faces the camera wearing a black t-shirt with lettering on it. She is sitting in a corn field

Neurodiversity and COVID times

There are studies to be done yet on how the pandemic affected those of us who are neurodiverse. In my case, it heightened my hyper-focus causing me to break down with stress and exhaustion at Christmas. My hyper-focus overrides my ability to switch off at the end of the day. While someone may recognise 5 pm as clocking-off time, I can’t and will often work until midnight if I can.

I needed medication to help ease this.

I also needed help getting to sleep. In non-covid times, I would head to the gym to burn off the excess energy I had stored up from sitting down at a desk all day. When everything closed, I had nowhere to go so I just stayed at home. This led to a lack of sleep where I would go days without proper rest.

I was exhausted and burned out.

NHS help

I eventually tried to access more pharmaceutical methods of treating my ADHD in desperation. My GP referred me to the ADHD support services in Nottingham and I had my first assessment call with them.

It’s extremely nerve-racking going to a new doctor when you have a condition that isn’t immediately visible. I worry that I’m not going to be taken seriously and you are at the mercy of someone’s interpretation of your condition. I cried down the phone asking for help because I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I have lost jobs, partners, friends and my life has been shaped by having ADHD. So when the doctor said he didn’t feel my ADHD was bad enough for medication, I felt mortified and was close to giving up. I’ve gone years managing it myself so why bother to look now?

I appealed but it’s now over six months later and I am still waiting to hear anything back from them about treatment.

Cannabis was a huge part of my life already. I had been writing about it for so many years that I was amazed I hadn’t thought about it before now. In researching a story, I noticed that clinics offered medical cannabis for ADHD.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Cannabis helps to quieten the racing thoughts and excessive energy that fuels my hyper-focus and keeps me awake at night. There hasn’t been a lot of studies of cannabis on ADHD and those that exist tend to be recent.

A study from 2020 on CBN showed potentially promising results. It took adults with ADHD and a medical cannabis prescription. They were asked to record their symptoms, sleep and anxiety pattern using questionnaires. One group of the 59 participants were given a higher dose and recorded less medication use. Those on the lower doses reported less anxiety.

Life-changing medication

The assessment from a private medical cannabis clinic was life-changing. Not only did the doctor listen to everything I had to say but there was no judgement. I felt able to talk about some of the darker parts of my ADHD that I hadn’t felt comfortable speaking to the NHS doctor about.

To get to this stage, I had to get every last bit of information from various GPs that had treated me over the years. This may sound easy but I had moved country three times living in Ireland, Italy and the UK. Not only that but the psychiatrist who diagnosed me had passed away in 2020, as well as my childhood doctor retiring.

The relief of being told I could have medical cannabis was immense. I had been sourcing it where I could prior to that which meant I had no idea what I had or when I would have it. I rationed the small amounts I could get and never knew what was working or not working.

ADHD: A white woman with short pastel pink hair wears blue headphones around her neck with a leopard print scarf

Medication

My cannabis arrived at my front door in a small white tub from Rokshaw. For someone who had never held a prescription for it before, it felt surreal to hold a white tub with a pharmaceutical label on it that was filled with cannabis.

I’m still learning to use it properly by getting the perfect vape and a routine that works. I have only had it for a few weeks so there is time to learn all of this yet. Also, ADHD people can be forgetful about their medication so I have to be mindful that I have something in the house that can help me to relax and sleep.

I no longer worry about rationing and can have as much as I actually need. I also know what is in my medicine, instead of trusting strangers to be upfront about it.

I started to write the series on emigration after realising that I knew a lot of Irish people who had left or were in the process of leaving to get access. A lot of them were in pain and really needed better access to their medication which Ireland wasn’t providing for them.

Writing about emigration as an emigrated person, made me realise that I have another issue now. I always wanted to move home after a while but to do so means I lose out in two ways.

Firstly, my job as a cannabis writer does not exist in Ireland. I’ve spent ages accumulating this information, researching and understanding how this industry works. The media industry in Ireland is incredibly difficult to get into as not only a woman but a queer female who is not from Dublin but from West Cork. There are no cannabis publications in existence over there or regular reporting on the industry in the broadsheets.

Secondly, my cannabis prescription is not valid in Ireland. I would need a prescription from an Irish GP which is going to be impossible to get. If someone with chronic pain from cancer cannot get an affordable prescription or a person with fibromyalgia can’t get one at all, then I don’t fancy my chances. This is why people are leaving.

I cannot travel home to my country without risking arrest or having my medication taken off me. One choice is to leave my medication at home which I can do, but my symptoms will come back. Another is to take the risk and see what happens. The final choice is access once I land which means going back to the flourishing black market in Ireland and taking my chances.

I’ve reached out to Frank Feighan and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. I’ve sent them my articles on emigration to no response. I outlined my problem on returning home. Mr Feighan is the Minister of State for Public Health, Well Being and National Drugs Strategy. He responded with a cut and paste response that I could have found on the internet with a quick Google that basically said nothing in relation to my case. Since that response, I’ve had nothing back. Stephen Donnelly has never replied.

I won’t risk it. My family are too important for me to never visit Ireland again and it’s my home. There is a deep sadness in knowing you won’t be able to move home until this is fixed but an even bigger one in knowing, it’s not likely to be any time soon.

I would like to say thank you to Aoife, Adrienne, Alicia and Joe who all spoke to me as part of the series. 

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